In spite of concerns related to terrorist attacks, Malaysia-style disappearances and other safety issues, passengers are still willing to pay a great deal for the convenience of plane travel.
Some, however, have expressed reluctance to board planes, in part because they believe some of the ridiculous myths attached to the concept of commercial airplanes.
The following are some of the most commonly believed urban legends that simply are not true:
1. Your cell phone is guaranteed to cause a plane crash
One of the most common myths related to flying involves the supposedly inherent dangers of using electronic devices while on board.
Many passengers actually believe that all use of electronic devices on planes is banned by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). There is no such FAA blanket ban on electronic devices, although many airlines continue to force passengers to turn such devices off during take-off and landing.
At this point, there is no real evidence available to suggest that cell phones and other electronic devices actually increase the risk of plane crashes. If that happened to be the case, it’s doubtful whether any airlines would allow passengers to board with electronic devices at all.
The main problem with cell phones is that they are believed by some to interfere with communication during take-off and landing.
However, new regulations from the FAA allow for the expanded use of other electronic devices during all phases of flight. This focus on deregulation of electronic devices on planes is expected to continue in months and years to come.
2. Airplane-induced sickness results from recirculated air
Sickness in the aftermath of an airplane journey is very common, and, according to some skeptics, the cause is recirculated air in the passenger cabin.
Airlines take safety seriously, and that includes the prevention of epidemics.
Thus, the air in passenger areas is, in fact, fresh and, what’s more, has been filtered to remove the vast majority of bacteria and viruses.
Although airlines do an excellent job at removing bacteria from the pressurized fresh air in passenger cabins, illness spread on planes remains a significant problem.
The culprit, however, is not the air. Rather, passengers touch a variety of surfaces while on planes and in airports. These include trays, seats, bathroom doors and a wide array of other objects and appliances.
All these are capable of spreading bacteria, particularly when they are used by dozens of passengers, many of whom may not have engaged in proper hygiene practices prior to boarding the plane.
3. Drinking alcohol on a plane allows you to get drunk quickly
While it’s true that consuming alcohol can make an otherwise miserable plane ride more entertaining (for the person drinking the alcohol, at least; fellow passengers may not hold the same opinion), your presence on an airplane will not make you intoxicated any more quickly than you would be if you were downing cocktails in your favorite bar.
Numerous studies have been conducted on the effects of alcohol, and all suggest that blood alcohol levels increase at the same rate when drinkers are in the air as they do on the ground.
Although you technically do not get drunk faster on a plane, air travel combined with alcohol can lead to dehydration. Thus, the hangover you experience after an in-flight drinking session may be far worse than the one that occurs under ordinary circumstances.
You can reduce the impact of such a hangover by drinking plenty of water before you board the plane, or, best of all, limiting your alcohol consumption before, during and after your flight.
4. Babies born on airplanes are allowed to fly free for their entire lives
If only this myth happened to be true, plenty of youngsters would be enjoying unlimited travel!
Those who support the urban legend of lifetime free airfare for babies born on planes believe that the policy explains why airlines have passed so many restrictions related to pregnant women.
They claim that it’s all in the interest of discouraging expecting mothers from boarding planes, giving birth and taking advantage of this amazing deal!
Of course, if airlines were really worried about the financial prospect of giving unlimited plane rides to babies born during flights, they wouldn’t offer such a deal in the first place — and they don’t!
The real reason airlines place certain boarding restrictions on pregnant women is that they’re concerned about the safety of both the expecting mothers and their unborn children.
Having a mother deliver on a plane is a huge medical risk and one that airlines certainly don’t want to incur. Thus, a mother expecting a child within the next few days may very well be refused entrance onto a plane.
Whether she gave birth during the flight or not, her child would definitely not earn free plane rides for life.
5. Modern planes are flown on autopilot
Remember the satirical film “Airplane” and the autopilot function that took over when the designated pilots were no longer capable of flying?
The reason this portion of the movie was so hilarious was that the thought of a plane on complete autopilot (with a silly blow-up doll serving as the new pilot) was so ridiculous.
That concept no longer seems quite as insane these days, however, given the presence of self-driving Google cars and other advanced forms of transportation technology.
Although technology has streamlined much of what takes place in the cockpit of your average plane, it is in no way advanced enough to completely take over a pilot’s duties.
Autopilot is definitely utilized in certain circumstances — most notably, when the plane is already in the air and is cruising in safe weather conditions. Even then, the pilot is definitely not napping when autopilot is on; rather, he or she is paying close attention to potential hazards in the plane’s path and taking careful note of its continued progress.
And when a take-off or landing is imminent, autopilot is removed and the full responsibility for controlling the plane is left to the pilot.
6. Crash positions are actually intended to make the identification of dead passengers easier
In one common urban legend about flying, gullible listeners are advised to avoid following official airline instructions related to crash positions.
Apparently, the crash position is not intended to actually make individuals safer; rather, it is meant to kill them off quickly and in a manner that will make for better body identification once the plane is found.
Not only is the above urban legend blatantly untrue, it’s an incredibly dangerous myth to pass around.
The standard crash position has been designated as such for a reason, and that reason is definitely not to provide some sort of cynical mercy kill so as to streamline the identification process.
If you’re having this conversation with someone, you’ll probably hear the next argument as well.
7. Crash positions kill off passengers quickly so as to avoid potential insurance battles
There are multiple myths related to the viability of crash positions; one such urban legend posits that the crash position, far from being designed to protect passengers, actually kills them in hopes of protecting an airline’s financial assets.
If a passenger dies during a crash, it is thought to be far less expensive to simply shell out for the wrongful death lawsuit than to provide a lifetime’s worth of medical care for serious injuries and disabilities resulting from the disaster.
The problem with this concept is that, no matter what happens, a crash proves incredibly expensive for an airline. Yes, lawsuits from both surviving passengers and the families of dead passengers must be taken into account, but this is by no means the only cost an airline must factor in.
A plane crash also serves as a huge marketing hazard, and with good reason; what reasonable traveler wants to board the plane of an airline best known for killing off dozens, even hundreds of its passengers in a major crash? If anything, the cost of swapping a death for an injury could be seen as a means of diminishing customer concern.
Although any crash looks bad to prospective passengers, one in which fifty travelers were killed seems a whole lot worse than one in which fifty travelers sustained injuries.
8. China regularly sends pandas on passenger planes as an act of diplomacy
Perhaps one of the more ridiculous of the plane-based urban legends, a viral internet photo shows an adorable panda sitting on an airplane and explains that this critter is being sent abroad as an official act of diplomacy.
In some of the forwarded emails related to this internet hoax, the panda is said to be named Squee Squee, a decidedly odd title — and one that is not recorded for a single panda currently in captivity.
Although it’s true that China has occasionally sent pandas to the zoos of other nations in hopes of fostering improved relationships, those pandas would never, ever be allowed to actually sit alongside other passengers on normal airplanes.
Some planes will allow certain pet carriers with small cats or dogs to be included in the passenger cabin, but this is definitely not the case for large, wild animals such as pandas.
They may seem cute and cuddly, but ultimately, pandas do not belong next to humans on passenger planes, nor would they ever be allowed to travel in such a manner.
9. American highways and freeways could serve as emergency landing strips during times of war
According to one popular urban legend, all United States freeways were carefully designed so that one mile out of every five would be one hundred percent flat.
These flat strips of freeway could allegedly double as landing strips in times of war, so that, should an attack occur on American soil, airplanes could land safely in a matter of seconds.
Of course, not only would such a design be highly impractical to build and maintain across the entire interstate system, it really isn’t necessary given the prominence of far safer private airfields.
In the case of an emergency, these true airstrips could be pressed into service at a moment’s notice, leaving freeways to accomplish their true purpose — moving people and supplies quickly and efficiently.
Technically, the potential for war was a consideration of the Eisenhower administration when the interstate system was in its initial development stages. But officials never believed that freeways could serve as adequate landing strips for planes. Rather, freeways were viewed as a more efficient means of transportation.
The quick travel and exchange of supplies would be an absolute essential in times of war, and freeways were believed to streamline that process.
10. Boeing has developed a blended wing body aircraft for commercial use
This is, perhaps, one of the more believable of the common airplane myths, as it utilizes terminology from a type of airplane style that is believed to be a possibility in the near future.
An aircraft with a blended wing body would boast a very science fiction worthy appearance, featuring a flattened body, with wings blending smoothly into the remainder of the plane.
Experts believe that blended wing body (or BWB) planes would boast excellent lift-to-drag ratios, making them vastly more fuel efficient than traditional airplanes.
A common myth posits that Boeing has already developed a BWB commercial aircraft and that passengers currently have the option of flying in this futuristic plane. While such a development could very well take place in the future, a commercial BWB plane does not yet exist.
Plans for military-based BWB aircraft are well underway, with NASA already having created a prototype.
However, given the difficulties related to designing a safe and economically viable BWB aircraft, it could be a long time before such a plane is actually available on a commercial level.
Still, science fiction lovers are holding out hope that they’ll be allowed to board BWB commercial planes by the end of the decade.
11. A hole in an aircraft will grow and suck passengers out of the hole
In the late eighties, two major incidents occurred that have likely played a role in the advent of this urban legend, which says that a small hole in an airplane during flight will increase in size due to air pressure until it sucks passengers out of the plane or tears the aircraft apart.
At high altitudes, the cabin of an aircraft is pressurized. Outside air moves through compressors in the plane’s engines and enters the cabin at a higher pressure.
This is to keep passengers and crew conscious for the duration of the flight.
Explosive decompression occurs when a large hole depressurizes the cabin extremely rapidly, and it was the culprit in the few cases where passengers were sucked out of a plane due to a breach in the cabin.
However, if a small opening, such as a bullet hole, occurs at a high altitude, the cabin pressure will compensate for the pressure that’s leaking out, and the hole won’t get any larger.
Even a larger breach, like the five square foot hole that opened in the roof of a Southwest Airlines flight in 2011 and resulted in zero injuries, won’t necessarily suck anyone out of the plane.
In order to get sucked out of the plane, the hole would have to be very large, and you would need to be right next to it without your seat belt on. Even then, depending on several factors, the explosive decompression may not be strong enough to actually suck you out of the plane.
If the hole is enormous, well, that’s a different story. In 1988, a Boeing 737 experienced explosive decompression when an 18-foot portion of the roof and cabin ripped off, and a flight attendant who was standing in the aisle was sucked out of the plane.
Then, in 1989, a lower cargo door on a Boeing 747 unlatched at 23,000 feet. The explosive decompression tore open the fuselage and nine passengers were ejected from the plane, seats and all.
12. Oxygen masks are meant to get you high so that you’ll stay calm during a crash
“You know why they put oxygen masks on planes? Oxygen gets you high. In a catastrophic emergency, you’re taking giant panicked breaths. Suddenly you become euphoric, docile. You accept your fate.”
So spoke Tyler Durden in the hit movie “Fight Club,” and an urban legend was born.
The truth is, the oxygen mask that pops out of the ceiling will very likely save your life in the event the cabin loses pressure.
The outside air at cruising altitude is extremely oxygen-poor. If depressurization occurred, you would eventually pass out; how long it would take for this to happen would depend on the altitude and the speed of decompression.
Explosive decompression at 15,000 feet would considerably diminish your brain function, although it would take some time before you lost consciousness. At 30,000 feet, you would pass out in 15 to 20 seconds.
Pure oxygen may or may not make you feel high, but the masks on airplanes don’t have any more oxygen than the pressurized air in the plane has.
Each mask has about ten minutes’ worth of oxygen, which allows you to stay conscious (without feeling high) while the plane descends to an altitude that will provide enough oxygen to keep you conscious and alive.
13. Airplanes dump their waste in midflight
This urban legend is so prevalent, and so many people believe it, that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released to the public a fact sheet entitled, “It Came From The Sky: Human Waste, Blue Ice and Aviation” to set the record straight.
The truth is, planes don’t dump their waste in the air. Period.
There are two types of airplane toilets. A closed waste system uses water to flush waste into an onboard tank for storage, while a vacuum waste system sucks the waste into the tank, powered by the difference in air pressure between the inside and outside of the plane.
It may sound like the waste is being ejected into the great blue yonder, but the onboard tank is its destination in every case.
The storage tank is emptied by the ground crew, accessed via a valve that is located on the exterior of the plane, therefore making it impossible for the flight crew to empty it into the air even if they wanted to.
However, if the tank leaks or a tube malfunctions, it’s possible that the sewage and the blue treatment liquid can seep out of the plane. This is the “blue ice” the FAA was referring to in their fact sheet.
The liquid freezes at high altitudes and generally sticks to the side of the airplane until it melts at lower altitudes. Before hitting the ground, however, the blue ice typically evaporates.
Nevertheless, the FAA investigates all purported incidents of blue ice hitting houses, cars and the like, but usually finds that the culprit is a migratory bird who has eaten blue berries.
Until the 1990s, trains used to dump their waste on the tracks, and cruise ships currently dump theirs into the ocean. But it’s categorically untrue that airplanes dump their waste midflight.
14. Pilots cut airflow to the cabin in order to save fuel
A rather insidious urban legend about flight claims that pilots reduce the flow of air during flight to save money on fuel costs. This myth is ridiculous on many levels.
Airflow during a flight is automatic, and the only time it’s adjusted manually is in the event of a malfunction with the airflow system.
Airflow controls on aircraft typically have three settings: HI, NORM and LO. The HI setting is used when a quick change in temperature is required.
The NORM setting is the standard during flight, providing the right amount of air for normal lung and organ function. The LO setting is used when the number of passengers on the plane dips below a particular threshold, but the difference between NORM and LO is fairly small.
A related legend has it that oxygen flow is decreased during flight to help keep passengers sedated. This, too, is a ridiculous idea for several reasons. First, the oxygen levels are determined by the pressurization of the plane and are automatically set based on the flying altitude and the destination airport’s elevation.
It’s important to remember that the pilots breathe the same air as the passengers. Reduced airflow and oxygen will quickly result in hypoxia, the symptoms of which include giddiness and a sense of relaxation right at first, but soon turn to confusion, nausea and a killer headache – that is, if you don’t pass out first.
15. You’re asked to open your shades and return seats to the upright position so that the crew doesn’t have to do it before the next group boards
“We are ready to begin our descent. Please return your seat back and folding trays to their full upright and locked positions.”
You hear it on every single flight, and passengers generally comply with the request.
There are a few folks, however, who don’t feel they should have to do the crew’s work.
It would make sense that the crew doesn’t want to squeeze into every seat row to secure trays, return seats to their normal position and open all the window shades before the next flight. They have plenty of other things to be getting on with. However, that’s not the reason the request is made. Rather, it’s an issue of safety.
In the event of a problem during landing, you may need to get out of the plane in a hurry, and an engaged tray will prove to be an obstruction when trying to exit your seat row.
Additionally, having to squeeze past a reclined chair, especially if you have a child in your arms or quite a few extra pounds on you, can slow things down considerably.
It’s also a way to help protect your head in a crash situation. If the seat in front of you is reclined, your head is just that much closer to something it could strike during a crash landing, resulting in injury or unconsciousness, which makes it that much harder to get to safety.
The window shades need to be up so that the crew can evaluate the condition of the wings and the environment around the plane during an emergency, and so that rescue workers can see into the plane if necessary.
16. Airline food is bad because it’s made from the cheapest ingredients possible
Airline food has the same bad reputation as hospital food: it’s disgusting and barely fit for human consumption.
Not long ago, an ad executive by the name of Oliver Beale wrote a letter to Virgin Atlantic airlines about the experience of eating the airline’s food during a flight.
The email, which went viral, described the food as “yellow shafts of sponge,” “sour gel with a clear oil on top” and “the taste of curry emanating from a miscellaneous central cuboid of beige matter.”
Virgin Atlantic later hired a celebrity chef to try to give their food a makeover, just as many airlines had done before.
The thing is, while airlines are striving to save money as energy prices increase, these companies actually do tend to hire talented chefs and use quality ingredients for their fare. The reason airline food is perceived as a culinary abomination has less to do with ingredients and more to do with science.
First of all, at high altitudes, taste buds don’t work like they do on the ground because air pressure desensitizes them. Researchers at the University of Manchester found that loud conditions reduce our perception of sweet and salty flavors and increase our perception of crunchiness.
In addition, the low humidity of the cabin dries out the nasal passages, which are an essential part of detecting the nuanced flavors of food.
It’s not that the airlines don’t try. In fact, when they introduce new foods to the menu, airlines test out the food in the air. But the sheer volume of meals required for a flight and the need for the food to be able to sit in warming ovens for long periods of time makes for a less-than-appetizing meal, no matter how you look at it.
17. You can get stuck to the airplane toilet if you flush while you’re sitting on it
In 2002, reputable media like Reuters and the BBC reported that a woman had become trapped on the toilet on an SAS flight from Scandinavia to the U.S.
Allegedly, the large woman had flushed the toilet while she was sitting on it, and the power of the vacuum stuck her fast to the seat.
She had to be freed by airline personnel after the plane landed some hours later.
Unfortunately for the news outlets, the report was identified as a hoax, but an urban legend that was born that persists to this day.
The popular Discovery Channel show “Mythbusters” took on the legend during the first season. The show’s crew procured an airplane toilet and a vacuum pump, but they also needed a big butt.
Instead of finding a large woman to test out the legend, they had a 300 pound butt manufactured by the sex toy industry. No matter how hard they tried, they couldn’t get a perfect seal between the butt and the toilet, and considered the myth busted.
Indeed, the suction of an airplane toilet, at three pounds per square inch, isn’t nearly enough to trap someone on the seat. Furthermore, getting a perfect seal between the seat and the butt is virtually impossible. And, according to physicists, even if you could get a perfect seal and got stuck to the toilet, as soon as the vacuum turned off, the seal would be broken and the victim would be released.
Nevertheless, it’s a good idea to stand up before you flush, just to be safe.
18. Breast implants can explode at high altitudes
We’ve probably all heard the story of a friend of a friend of a friend who spent a fortune on breast implants, only to have them expand inside her during a flight, straining her muscles and skin until the implants finally exploded and leaked silicone gel throughout her body and ruined her new rack.
The same story has been told about women with breast implants who go scuba diving.
The good news is, neither rumor is true.
Breast implants are made of a silicone casing that’s filled with silicone gel. While they may change subtly at particularly high or low pressure, and may even expand very slightly at high altitudes shortly after surgery due to tiny air bubbles in the surrounding tissues, they simply cannot, and will not, explode.
A study of the topic by Duke University researchers concluded that a human would die from extremely high or low air pressure long before silicone breasts would explode. Likewise, “Mythbusters” aired a segment on the topic, and reached the same conclusion.
It should be pointed out that, although the plane is flying at high altitudes, the cabin is pressurized, and if little soda bottles, aerosol cans and other similar items don’t explode while in the air, neither will breast implants.